Leaving Adelaide, where we were warmly received by so many people, would have been even harder had we not been looking forward to the journey with David and Jeannette. We fed, loved, and played with Charles the poodle one last time, locked the door, and climbed in the car. I had a lump in my throat as we drove past familiar sights, not knowing when we would see them again.
In Tailem Bend we stopped for breakfast at a petrol station where D&J knew we could find tasty raisin toast. Fields that in good times are lush with growth are now an endless plain of dry, brown fields. The photo shows the story for the locals, who know how to interpret it. What looks like plenty of water for irrigation is, in fact, a drought-stricken river whose level has sunk too low for the out-take pipes to bring it to thirsty farmland.
On the long stretch between Talem Bend and Kingston, we stopped for a glimpse of the long stretch of water and dunes known as the Coorong. Mandy Perry had given us a copy of Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy when she and husband Brenton visited us in Port Elliot. When we had lunch with them in Willunga in March, she gave us a DVD of the film made from the story.
Both are Australian classics. Children still grow up hearing the 1970s story of a young boy and his hermit father who live on a sand-swept Coorong beach. They still weep when the pelican he befriends… No, I won’t give it away because if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you’ll want to find the poignant story. As we stood looking out at sand and water, knowing the sea was just over the hump of the dunes on the other side, I thought of the boy, of the Aboriginal man who befriended him, of the difficult choices he and his father had to make.
In Kingston we stopped at a park for a tailgate picnic. Of course, we also had to stop to take photographs of the giant lobster that gives the town its distinct identity.
Kingston isn’t the only town with “the biggest” something or other as its claim to fame. It’s an odd compulsion, but it does attract visitors, even if they’re only passing through and stop to snap a picture. I once lived in a town whose icon was The Biggest Hockey Stick in the World. (That’s in Duncan on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, for those of you who have somehow missed this outstanding bit of trivia.)
Some of the best stories come from the exploits of people who cling tenaciously to an outrageous idea. One of those was the creator of the Woakwine Cutting, a slight detour on our route from Kingston to Mt. Gambier.
Murray McCourt owned a peat swamp he figured would make good farmland if he could drain it. He and Dick McIntyre, who worked for him, set to work in 1957. Using a D7 Caterpillar Crawler Tractor, a seven-ton Drawn Ripper, an eleven-yard LeTourneau Scraper, and a Single Furrow Swamp Plough, and plenty of explosives, they spent the next three years cutting a kilometer-long trench through stone and earth. At its deepest, the trench is 28.34 metres. The two men removed 276,000 cubic metres of material and turned “wasteland” into farmland.
It’s a curious story of dogged determination. There’s no free environmental lunch, of course. Draining a 420-hectare swamp boosted one man’s fortunes but didn’t do much for his neighbours, the water table, or the downstream recipients of his agricultural runoff.
Mount Gambier was our destination for the day. We spent some time walking down into the Umpherston Sinkhole. Millions of years ago, a shallow sea covered the area. When it receded, the remains of marine life formed limestone, which was gradually pushed up out of the sea. Over time, groundwater found its way through faults in the rock and formed a cavern. Eventually the roof collapsed. That’s a short version of what took eons, but now it is a lush underground park that stays cool even on the hottest days. With a stage at one end, and grassy tiers rising to the edges of the sinkhole, it is a favourite place for summer performances and gatherings.
Mt. Gambier is built on old volcanic land so we drove up into the hills that were once the slopes of active volcanoes and visited two lakes that have formed in old craters. Visitors to Oregon’s Crater Lake will have a sense of what these smaller versions look like. We stopped for a walk at Valley Lake. It’s a great spot for family picnics and water skiing, though North American water skiers might be surprised at how much pleasure can be gained turning small circles on a small lake.
For me, of course, the best sight was a couple of kangaroos, a female and her joey. They stared at me as I slowly walked toward them. When I violated their comfort level, they took off with the fluid springing motion that’s something of a combination of a bouncing pogo stick and the grace of a bird.
We also stopped to look at Blue Lake, the water supply for Mount Gambier. For a few days in November, it turns a vivid blue. From then through March it gradually fades, until it takes on the dull grey it carries until the next November.
Our last stop of the day was Pine Country Caravan Park. We stayed in one of the two-bedroom units. With its small kitchen/living space, it was a simple, clean, quite adequate home for the night.